Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus, has been in office for 26 years. Since Lukashenko’s initial victory in 1994, every presidential election in Belarus has been deemed fraudulent. This summer, after Lukashenko proclaimed himself the victor of Belarus’ most recent election, protests erupted across the country. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the likely winner of the election, had gained widespread support and reinvigorated Belarus’ democracy movement. While security forces in Belarus tried to suppress the protests using brutal and abusive methods, this only fueled public outrage.
Government authorities have cracked down on independent media reporting since the protests began. However, this has recently intensified, with the shutdown of the country’s last independent news organization, Tut.By. Additionally, Belarus forced a Ryanair flight to land in the capital, Minsk, and subsequently arrested Roman Protasevich, a journalist and exiled dissident. Protasevich fled Belarus in 2019 and was placed on a terrorist watch list by the government. The international community is condemning this action by the Belarusian government as “air piracy.”
In April, the UN Human Rights Council (OHCHR) issued a resolution denouncing the continued use of excessive force and arbitrary detention. The OHCHR released a statement expressing concern that “instead of bringing perpetrators to justice, the authorities are arbitrarily seeking to silence all forms of dissent, through unjustified violence, intimidation and growingly by bringing criminal charges against those who exercise their fundamental rights, or defend victims of human rights violations.”
Most nations have been cautious in their response to Belarus. Following the 2020 election, however, certain countries refused to recognize the results and when protests ensued, states criticized the government’s use of force. However, there hasn’t been enough action to stop the government’s widespread human rights violations. The Belarusian government and security forces were never held accountable for their actions and since then, there has been a flagrant escalation in the government’s use of force and suppression of the media.
Most recently, the forced grounding of a Ryanair flight and arrest of Roman Protasevich caused international outrage. The European Union (EU) has reacted extremely quickly to the “hijacking” and decided to impose sanctions on Belarus. Moreover, the EU requested that the International Civil Aviation Organization launch an investigation into the grounding. The EU has also advised all EU-based carriers to avoid flying in Belarusian airspace.
The United States released a statement announcing that it’s “in coordination with the EU and other partners and Allies,” and that together it will be “developing a list of targeted sanctions against key members of the Lukashenka regime associated with ongoing abuses of human rights and corruption, the falsification of the 2020 election, and the events of May 23.”
After the fraudulent 2020 election, many countries placed sanctions on Belarus. However, the close relationship between Belarus and Russia protected the former from feeling the full effects of incoming sanctions. Russia promised a 1.5 billion dollar loan to Belarus when protests began last August. The second installment of this loan is set to be received in June 2021 and will offset the newly imposed sanctions on the country. Sanctions imposed on Belarus by the West have strengthened the relationship between Belarus and Russia and further intertwined their economies.
The international community has grown concerned over this closening relationship between Belarus and Russia. The increasing unrest in Belarus has revived conversation over the creation of a “unity state” between the two countries. In a meeting between Putin and Lukashenko this week, Putin stated that the countries are moving to strengthen their relationship. Belarus and Russia already have close political, economic, and military ties from a union initiated in 1999. The union is described by the Associated Press as being just short of a full merger. Many experts are concerned that in an attempt to save himself, Lukashenko may give up Belarusian sovereignty.
The measures that Western countries have been taking with regard to Belarus seem to be driving the nation further from democracy. Furthermore, the actions of the West have isolated Lukashenko’s opposition in Belarus. With the EU banning flights from Belarus and the government’s increasing repression, opposition-minded Belarusians are cornered. Of the situation, rights group leader, Tatsiana Hatsura-Yavorska, said “Belarus is being shut closed right before our eyes, and millions of Belarusians are finding themselves hostage.”
Without a means of escaping, opposition-minded citizens face imprisonment and torture. Newly freed Belarusian prisoners report being brutally beaten, neglected and starved. Recently, Belarus released a video of a badly bruised Roman Protasevich confessing to his charges.
It is imperative for the international community to find a way to hold Belarus accountable, while also protecting the country’s opposition movement. After the 2020 elections, Belarus’ democracy movement was unified and strong. However, the continued use of violent force by security forces to suppress protests weakened this movement. When protestors began opting for more passive and inconspicuous means of protesting, security forces began cracking down on this as well. Rather than isolate this democracy movement, the international community should be supporting its rebellion against Lukashenko’s regime.
Though Russia’s interest in and close ties to Belarus makes it difficult to change the political status quo at the moment, the EU needs to begin preparing for Belarus’ next presidential election. The role of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in the next election is crucial, as it can help significantly decrease election fraud. The OSCE helps make elections more democratic by helping countries with reform, training and the application of international standards. Belarus’ recent violations of international norms are a pressing issue. However, it’s even more important to focus on changing the political situation in the next election, as this will create long-term change for the country.
“A North Korea is being built,” one protester said regarding Belarus during a protest in Lithuania. With the increasing unpredictability, isolation and disregard for international norms, this isn’t a far-fetched statement. The world needs to act now to end Lukashenko’s dictatorship.